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Closing the Gender Pay Gap: Lawsuits as Impetus for Change

Though legal action is an instrument to challenge unjust structural policies, it also serves as a notable defence against human rights breaches. Lawsuits protect injured actors by holding faulty parties accountable for injury or damages. Furthermore, they can also incite more widespread change through establishing precedents for similar ensuing legal debates. Diffusing to every sector of society's specific codes of conduct, lawsuits establish social norms.

Lawsuits have especially been influential in protecting equal opportunity rights of individuals against corporations and other organisations. These rights include the right to equal pay without discrimination based on identity. The gender pay gap is the difference between the remuneration for men and women across the workforce. Gender pay discrimination is prevalent across an array of industries, with one commonly-cited report from the Census Bureau concluding that on an annual basis women are paid 80 cents for every dollar that men are paid. Moreover, the United Kingdom's Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) reported in Aprril 2020 that the gender pay gap among full-time employees was 7.4 percent and 15.5 percent among all employees. Although the wage differences may vary between industries and in relation to employees' ranks within companies, pay discrimination is a form of inequality that is consistent across companies globally.

In October, 2021, Syracuse University agreed to pay over US$ 3.7 million (approximately GBP 2.7 million)to settle a class-action lawsuit initiated by five female faculty members. These women highlighted the gender pay gap between the faculty to illustrate the institution’s participation in discriminatory pay and promotion policies. While the University continues to deny the accusations, the court settlement ensures that most full-time female faculty will now receive increased compensation. The Syracuse lawsuit is one among a number of wage discrimination cases brought against American universities in the last several years. For example, in a 2020 lawsuit, Princeton University agreed to pay US$ 925,000 (around GBP 674,000) in back pay and over US$ 250,000 (approximately GBP 182,000) in planned salary adjustments as compensation for pay disparities that affected 106 female professors between 2012 and 2014.

More recently, the UK Supreme Court has been scrutiniSing an equal pay lawsuit against Walmart Inc.’s Asda. The discrimination case was initiated by more than 15,000 employees who claim that their wages should equal those received by the company’s warehouse workers who are predominantly men. Asda has protested that wages justly differ between store and warehouse workers due to a variance in work conditions and employment programs while the plaintives argue that the difference stems from stereotypical beliefs that value women’s work as less than men’s. Employees in Asda’s depots currently receive between GBP 1.50 to GBP 3 more hourly pay than the chain’s shop workers. If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the workers, their wage would increase to match that of warehouse staff. The lawsuit’s ruling could result in a GBP 500 million compensation claim, in addition to a lasting wage increase for thousands of Asda shop workers throughout the UK

Moreover, the ruling in this case could define the future of pay standards at supermarkets nationally as it sets a precedent for similar pay discrimination lawsuits currently pending against J Sainsbury Plc, Tesco Plc, Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc and Co-Operative Group Ltd. The current claims against these supermarket chains accumulate to approximately GBP 8 billion which would serve as an unprecedented win for worker’s rights and pay equality. These lawsuits could not only win immediate compensation for thousands of employees nationally but could provide a momentous step towards reducing the wage gap at chain corporations nationally.

When discussing the wage gap, it is important to recognise the relevant influence of individual intersectionalities. Race, ethnicity and gender identity play a significant role in pay discrimination; individuals with intersectional identities can be exponentially harmed by the compounding negative effects of various biases. Current gender wage gap laws lack sufficient measures for addressing pay discrimination as an intersectional issue especially when requiring companies to collate and provide data on employee salary differences. For instance, transgender and non-binary employees are frequently left out of wider conversations surrounding wage disparities due to limitations on available data and restrictive approaches to establishing equal pay measures.

Lawsuits play an essential role in redefining the standards for equal pay and protecting workers’ rights. They protect the rights of employees by holding corporations liable for damages and harms committed against them and subsequently drive companies to improve their policies and procedures to avoid future litigation. Legal action can protect individuals by upholding their civil liberties, thereby promoting equality within the standards and conduct of every organisation.


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